We’re constantly told that the only way to be happy at work is to find your “calling.” But there’s a much easier–and more realistic–way to find happiness in your career.
“So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Ask a group of five-year-olds that, and you’ll be bombarded with enthusiastic shouts of: Fireman! Policeman! Ballerina! Baseball Player! Movie Star!
But how many of them will call out: Database Administrator! Market Research Analyst! HR Comp and Benefits Manager! Management/Leadership Consultant, Trainer, and Executive Coach!
We all know that more of us will end up in the latter group—and there’s nothing wrong with that. And yet, every other day I see another blog post like this one, peddling the popular notion that having a job or a career isn’t enough. These articles imply that if you’re just “working” and not pursuing your calling—whatever that means—you’re somehow wasting your life. But it’s not quite that simple.
Sending the Wrong Message
If you think back to your Psych 101 class and Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid, you’ll remember that people are motivated by (in order from bottom to top): Survival, Security, Belonging, Importance, and Self-Actualization. In today’s job market, most people are lucky to have their basic Survival and Security needs met, and even luckier if their job gives them a sense of Belonging/Community/Affiliation and Importance/Esteem. But not everyone achieves Self-Actualization from their work–especially early in their career.
And that’s OK!
There’s nothing wrong with having a job that meets the first four levels of the pyramid and seeking personal satisfaction and fulfillment from other aspects of your life (volunteering, hobbies, relationships, etc.) as you work toward achieving your dreams.
There is a significant number of people in the US who are currently out of work and millions more who are under-employed. Should people beat themselves up because they’re not living the dream? Or is it OK—at certain times in their lives—to accept a job that simply allows them to support themselves and their families? What’s wrong—especially in this difficult economy—with taking a job “for now” when you need to, while you figure out the next step towards building your career and discovering your calling?
For example, if you are just getting out of school and need to pay the rent—or gain experience, develop your network, and/or build your resume—you may decide to take a job that’s “fine for now.” Or if you’ve been out of work for a while, transitioning back into the workforce, or are just in the process of trying to figure out your next move, you may end up accepting a position that’s not your “dream job,” but moves you one step closer in that direction. While some people have seemingly linear career paths, others’ career journeys (like mine!) may be filled with endless bumps, detours, and setbacks. The key to success is resilience, self-discovery, and the ability to bounce back from adversity. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you NEED to do, while you’re travelling down the road towards what you HOPE to do.
It’s a lofty and noble ambition to want to go out and change the world every day or, as Steve Jobs put it, to “put a ding in the universe.” But the reality is that finding your calling – and getting paid to do what you love to do (if you even know what that is!) – is not that easy. And what is a “calling” anyway?
Job vs. Career vs. Calling
A job is something you do for a paycheck. You show up and do the work, and for that you get paid. A job pays the rent, puts clothes on your back, and food on the table. A job fulfills Maslow’s survival and security needs. As most of us have, I’ve held numerous “survival jobs” over the course of my career, both when I was just starting out, as well as a few times when I was in between “real” jobs that were intended to further my career. I did telephone sales, temped, and was even a bouncer in a club for a while (don’t ask). These jobs weren’t fulfilling, they weren’t leading to a career, and I wasn’t exactly rolling in dough. But when that paycheck came, I was certainly glad to have it.
Most people—if they’re lucky enough to be working—have jobs. Especially when first starting out. And as long as you’re showing up on time with a positive and productive attitude, putting in honest effort, producing results, and delivering a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re there to get the job done and, hopefully, recognized and rewarded for it. And, if you’re really lucky, you’ll do so for a boss who appreciates you and sets you up for success, with good colleagues, and in an environment that you enjoy working in.
If your series of jobs follows a seemingly related and generally upward path, it adds up to a career. A job is to a career like a step is to a staircase, or a rung is to a ladder. “Climbing the career ladder” and “moving forward along your career path” are common metaphors for good reason. It is often the answer to the question, “So, what do you do?”
So as long as you are exploring, growing, learning, developing, producing, and progressing, you’re probably moving forward in the right direction. But it’s also helpful to note that you may come to various forks in the road along your career path, and change direction multiple times – often in unexpected ways.
My dream back when I was in high school and college was to someday work in the tv industry as a producer or network executive. After a series of lower-level, internships and assistant jobs at Aaron Spelling, Columbia Pictures, Disney, and CBS, I realized that (for various reasons) working in that industry was (at that time), not for me. Multiple years and numerous twists and turn later, I ended up doing what I do (and love doing) today, running my own management consulting, training, and coaching business with my brother, as well as being an adjunct professor at NYU. Who ever would have called that? Definitely not me. Not in a million years. And yet, I love what I do, and now, for lack of a better word, call it my calling.
So what exactly is a “calling?” Some people describe it as an internal—almost spiritual—feeling about what you’re “meant” to do for a living. Almost as if it were predetermined, when you fulfill your calling, who you are and what you do are in alignment. You define yourself by your role, seek to master it, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Some would even go so far as to say that you would be compelled to do it—even if you aren’t getting paid. It’s what you were born to do. It is your mission and purpose on this earth. It’s your opportunity—and your obligation—to change the world and put that Steve Jobs ding in the universe.
Some people don’t have a “calling”—and that’s fine. In this day and age, there’s nothing wrong with working at different jobs or exploring multiple careers over the course of one’s lifetime. While my father worked a total of two jobs in his professional career (including the last 35 years as an IRS agent—Boo! Hiss!), I’ve worked full-time for approximately 10 different companies so far. Back in the day that was looked upon as instability; today, people say, “Wow – it’s amazing how many different things you’ve done!” And it wasn’t until I hit age 40 that I discovered my current “calling.”
There’s a saying that if you’re lucky enough to love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I don’t know if I’d go that far—because I work pretty hard even though I love what I do. But if you’ve ever had a job that you hated, and a job that you loved, you know that it’s a lot more fun when you’re earning a living doing something that you love to do.
The Big Question
We may not always love every job we have–or every aspect of every job. But if you’re living what Thoreau called a “life of quiet desperation”, there’s good news. The job market is starting to pick up across the board, so now might be the time to start exploring some other job or career options.
But don’t feel that every single job you consider needs to fulfill your calling. Being open to new experiences and willing to explore new opportunities may lead you down a path to success that you might not have previously considered. It might even lead you to a calling that you never knew existed. The best job I ever had–for the best company and best boss–was a position I almost turned down. So, you never know. I’ve found that if you shoot for the stars, you may only reach the moon, but it will make you feel that the sky’s the limit.
As you aspire to a position that allows you the feeling of autonomy, the opportunity for mastery, and the sense of purpose that Dan Pink describes in his terrific book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, you may come to realize that being open to new experiences, changing your mindset, and managing your expectations is all you needed to get closer to where you want to be.